More than 300 students from India who enrolled in the University of North New Jersey — a sham college created by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ensnare visa fraudsters — are now facing deportation.
UNNJ — which was set up by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations divisions and opened its doors in 2013 — is an accredited university and is still listed on ICE’s list of approved schools for international students. The sham university’s Web site offered a “high quality” American education to students from around the globe.
UNNJ was not staffed with instructors or educators, had no curriculum, and conducted no actual classes or education activities. The university operated solely as a storefront location with small offices staffed by special agents posing as school administrators, according to ICE.
UNNJ also represented itself as a university with authorization to issue the form I-20, which certifies that a foreign student has been accepted as a full-time student and allows such students to get their F-1 student visas.
On April 5, ICE announced that it had arrested 21 brokers, recruiters and employers who had allegedly conspired with more than 1,000 foreign nationals to fraudulently maintain their student status, under what the agency termed a “Pay to Stay” scheme. Ten Indian American brokers were arrested in the sweep, and charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and conspiracy to harbor aliens.
“While the United States fully supports international education, we will vigorously investigate those who seek to exploit the U.S. immigration system,” said ICE director Sarah R. Saldaña in a press statement. “As a result of this operation, HSI special agents have successfully identified and shut down multiple operations which have abused the student visa program,” she said.
Alvin Phillips, spokesman for ICE’s New Jersey office, told India-West that – contrary to Indian media reports – none of UNNJ’s purported students have yet been deported. “We’re not marching people into buses and shipping them off,” he stated.
ICE has identified more than 300 Indian UNNJ enrollees who currently reside in several states across the U.S. The students were picked up and served with a notice to appear in court, but none are currently in custody, nor have they been fitted with monitoring devices such as ankle bracelets.
Phillips said UNNJ’s former enrollees are free to go about their daily lives until their court date.
Phillips stated that the purported students who were arrested were “100 percent complicit” with the fraudulent brokers who arranged for their ability to remain in the country. The majority entered on valid student visas, but wanted to extend their time in the U.S., or wanted the ability to stay without actually having to attend classes, and to work instead, he said.
“They knowingly committed fraud,” stated Phillips. “These individuals must own up to their actions and accept the consequences.”
The sting operation was set up “to identify vulnerabilities within our student exchange program,” said Phillips.
“ICE has entrapped these students and is now punishing them,” San Francisco immigration attorney Shah Peerally told India-West. “These students did not know they were participating in a sting operation. Most of the people I have spoken to said they fully expected to attend classes. When they asked the school why there were no classes or classrooms, they were told classes would start soon.”
Students who tried to transfer out of the sham university were discouraged by school administrators from doing so. Peerally alleged that ICE entrapped the students by letting them fill out their own transcripts, which is an illegal practice. He added that the Indian students — mostly from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana state — were new to the country and unaware of legal norms.
Peerally is trying to get U visas for the UNNJ students who are currently in deportation proceedings. U visas are typically given to people who are victims of crime. In this case, said Peerally, many of the students would be eligible for the visa based on fraud in labor contracting. Though they were not recruited specifically for employment, brokers provided them with false statements related to the opportunity or ability to take jobs in the U.S., he said.
Peerally also believes that the students — who paid upwards of $6,000 per semester to attend the sham school — deserve restitution of their fees from the U.S. government, because they were unwittingly trapped in the sting operation. ICE received tuition from several hundred students who paid directly to the school, he said, adding it is unclear where that money is now. Other students paid the brokers.
“They have struggled financially to be able to attend college in the United States. It is very heartbreaking,” he said.
Peerally also refuted Phillips’ statement, saying that some of the students he has spoken to are in ICE detention in Arizona.
In an online forum, several UNNJ enrollees said brokers had lured them with promises of a cheap U.S. education and the ability to work in the U.S. after finishing their coursework at another university, with Curricular Practical Training or Optional Practical Training status.